Tamers of the Wild: A Handful of Blacks Hold Major Positions as Curators at Nation's Zoos and Aquariums

Ebony, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Tamers of the Wild: A Handful of Blacks Hold Major Positions as Curators at Nation's Zoos and Aquariums


A few Black scientists and animal enthusiasts have found their niche on the "wild side" as power-brokers at some of the nation's top zoological parks and aquariums. These learned biologists, zoologists and psychologists--referred to as animal curators at most institutions--bravely train and manage the fierce, the venomous and sometimes adorable critters of the wild.

Although Blacks have long served as hoard members, directors, veterinarians and keepers at many of the nation's estimated 164 zoos, the five individuals featured here are the only African-Americans who presently hold managerial, curatorial positions.

The minds and muscles behind the nation's popular terrestrial and aquatic animal exhibits, these men and women supervise large professional staffs, provide educational materials for the public, chart the medical and dietary needs of zoo animals and travel as far as Africa, Asia, India and Australia to secure endangered species.

Admittedly not enticed by large salaries, these conservation-minded administrators--who weren't even aware of each other before this story-say it is their genuine love for nature's vulnerable wildlife that keeps them devoted to a field that is all but void of African-American representation.

David P. Ford, 47, animal curator, Akron (Ohio) Zoological Park (above), stands in front of the home of a liver otter. For Ford, zoology is "a second career." Before joining the zoo staff as an animal keeper 13 years ago, he worked as a tire builder. Now he enjoys the duties that go along with being curator over the zoo's entire collection of 300 specimens.

Animals have always been a part of life for Ford, who grew up in the inner-city projects of north Akron. As a child, he spent much of his time in the woods which encompassed his home. "We couldn't have pets in the projects, but I played in the woods all the time. I collected frogs and toads, and gradually developed an interest in animals," he explains. Away from work, Ford still enjoys the call of the wild, especially birds. His favorite pastime of bird-watching has even landed him an appearance on the children's show Mr. Rogers.

Lisa Stevens, (above) 38, assistant curator of mammals at the National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., offers Hsing-Hsing, a Giant panda, a carrot treat. Known as the "Panda Woman" across the globe, Stevens has been pivotal in the conservation of the rare Chinese mammals. In addition to pandas, Stevens manages Bactrian camels and primates. She was also instrumental in developing socialization methods among a gorilla population which ultimately resulted in the zoo's first gorilla birth in 20 years.

Stevens, who received a bachelor's degree in zoology from Michigan State University, has been with the zoo for 13 years. She encourages others to consider the field as a career choice. "I'd like to see more African-Americans, as well as other minority groups, enter this profession," she says. "Youngsters need to think more broadly in terms of their career options. There's more out there than just high-profile, high-income professions. …

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